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Conversation with Helen Sword

Writing With Style

Helen Sword is a scholar, award-winning teacher, and poet who has published books and articles on modernist literature, higher education pedagogy, digital poetics, and academic writing. Born and raised in Southern California, she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and now teaches in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland.  Her latest book is Stylish Academic Writing.

Can I start by asking you for your definition of style?

Yeah that’s an interesting one. In academic writing, style is quite a neutral word. That’s why I tend to use the word “stylishness” when I’m talking about what, probably in a more design and creativity context, you would just call style, but there are all these academic style guides that are really about rules, and not about style. So when people talk about academic style, often they just mean how do you cite sources? Where do you put commas to be correct according to this style or that style. That’s not necessarily my definition of style, but that’s the definition in the context I’m working within. Calling my book Stylish Academic Writing was an intentional oxymoron because people so often don’t associate anything academic with being stylish. The point I was trying to make is that everybody has a style.

When I was working on the book, I was thinking quite intentionally about comparisons with style in architecture, style in furniture, style in clothing, where we can probably all agree that there are a lot of different styles and we might have different opinions about what styles we like, or even what we would call stylish, but we generally agree on what is and isn’t an attempt to be stylish. To just kind of push the metaphor a bit further, a lot of academic writing, to me is kind of like the person who rolls out of bed in the morning, pulls on a pair of track pants and goes to work dressed like that, or worse yet, goes to a black tie reception or something. Whereas if somebody came decked out and a Mohawk or a bunch of piercings, you would at least say, well they’re being self-conscious about how they’re dressing. They’ve got a sense of style, even if I don’t necessarily like that sense of style myself. There’s a broad range of possibilities of what could be stylish writing, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all self-conscious. There’s a self-consciousness on the part of the writer. They’re making an effort. They’re making conscious choices.  They’re not doing the writing equivalent of rolling out of bed and putting on the dirty clothes from the night before that just happened to be lying there.

So, stylishness, by its nature, is deliberate?

Yeah, it’s a deliberate effort to dress for the occasion. If you look at academics lecturing, some people really dress up. Some deliberately dress down. They don’t want to invoke that sense of authority. And then some will not think at all about what they’re wearing. And they’re the ones we’d probably associate with the absence of style. Same thing with writing—there are so many people who write the way they do because they’ve kind of unconsciously absorbed the style of the discipline. And not because they’re making conscious choices about how to communicate effectively.

Why, in academia, is convention so often taken almost as if it is physical law?

 I think there’s a certain amount of resistance to stylishness in academia, not by everyone. But the idea that somehow, if you’re dressing things up, you’re therefore dumbing things down or you’re somehow not doing full justice to the ideas. One thing I found really interesting, researching the book, was the idea of ‘elegance.’  I could’ve called the book ‘Elegant Academic Writing’ and it would have sort of meant the same thing. In elegance, when we think about it in terms of again, clothing or furniture or something, we tend to equate it with a sense of style. Some indefinable sense of style. But in science and mathematics, it has quite a precise definition. Which is that it’s the shortest solution to a complex problem. That’s an elegant solution. So if you think about elegant writing in that way, it’s not necessarily shorter sentences, but it’s the best possible way of expressing what you need to express. And if you put that definition in front of academics, they’re very receptive to it. But if they think that what you mean by stylish is dressing things up, then they’re very resistant to that.

Is stylish academic writing always synonymous with clarity or might it also be more decorative?

Yeah, for me, it’s the gamut. And I come out of literary studies myself, and people who work in English departments will often value complexity. They’ll actually say I write these long, difficult sentences because there’s a kind of mental discipline that’s needed then, to be able to work through that complexity. I have some resistance to that—to the idea that you’re intentionally making things more complex to your reader, but I can understand the argument and I would like a definition of style or stylishness that allows for that choice. 

I love this example in your book of the Formula-1 pit stop crew that helps reinvent the organizational design and workflow of a hospital, making procedures more synchronized and efficient.  Can you speak to the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration? Does style has everything to do with thinking across disciplinary lines?

I think it does. It allows you more choices and it makes you more self-conscious about what you’re doing, so it fits perfectly within that overarching definition of what it means to be stylish. What I really noticed, when I went out to read books and articles by people who have been identified to me by their own peers as stylish writers, or exemplary writers, was how again and again that they were making references to ideas from beyond their own disciplines. That just seemed to be such a component to their way of thinking. And that goes way beyond writing in style on the level of how you construct a sentence. It’s really a mode of thinking that shows intellectual curiosity and voraciousness. Does that mean that interdisciplinarity is a component of stylishness? Not necessarily, but I would say that you have a much wider range of styles or ways of thinking at your disposal if you have an interdisciplinary bent. 

Conversation with Nadine Chahine

*This conversation was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style Issue; December 2012

Designing Dialogue

What are some key words in the type designer’s style lexicon? 

In Latin type design the word style is often used to distinguish between structurally different models of reference. The roman and italic are two different styles that can be related as part of the same typeface family. Style can also be used to refer to other references such as serifs, sans-serifs, slab-serifs and so on. Some key concepts relating to style are the style of the serifs, the axis direction—changing it gives you variations from a Garamond to a Bodoni, the contrast—how much variation you have in the thickness of the stroke, and rhythm—a condensed style will have a tighter rhythm.

 Besides readability, what are the ‘ingredients’ of a great font?

It is very important to have well-drawn outlines and a visual impact that can fulfill the function that the typeface is meant for. A great typeface needs to work in its intended setting whether that is book, newspaper, and mobile. It is not about how good the individual letters look, but rather how good the words and texts are, and how the letterforms work together. 

What would you call that element - how the letterforms work together? Flow?

Yes that would be the flow of reading movement. Imagine driving on a highway, the less bumpy then the more enjoyable the ride. Each letterform creates a black and white element. Together, letterforms combine to create the text pattern. If these black and white elements flow smoothly together then the pattern is enjoyable and smooth.  

How do you describe your own style? What boundaries are you playing across?

Very function driven, and realistically experimental. I like to play within the boundaries of different styles and to create hybrids that feel authentic and are readily acceptable to those who are meant to read them. 

Tell me about some of those different styles and the challenges of creating hybrids from them.

We have many different calligraphic styles and the main two are the Naskh and Kufi styles. The first is round and organic, and the second more squarish. A hybrid blends the pen-based movement of the first with the rhythmic simplicity of the second. Frutiger Arabic is a good example of that. 

How do you set the limits of how far you’ll take your experimental work?

You design and test it out and see how people react to it. It’s a lot of trial and error, as well as the deep study of how letterforms are shaped and the logic behind the aesthetics.

How do stylistic variations of Arabic scripts affect the written text? 

The effects are as dramatic as the differences between an italic and a Fraktur. There is a wide range of visual expressions and the purely calligraphic references in Arabic are a good starting point to study. However, we have a lot of things to say that cannot be told in the traditional calligraphic nomenclature. So we need to mix styles and to push the envelop within the limits of public acceptance in order to be able to express concepts that were simply not present during the times of Arabic calligraphic innovations.

How have you successfully transferred elements of style from other disciplines to your own work?

I am very interested in international politics and cultural exchange and this has shaped my approach to design in general. I do not see a separation between typefaces and the environment they live in. Everything we do is shaped by how we live and that has been the strongest driver for me. I grew up in the middle of an ugly civil war, and the ability to engage in dialogue between opposing parties (political, typographic or otherwise) has been the guiding principle in all my designs. 

The Lebanese Civil War - Can you talk more about the different ways that dialogue shows in your work? Is it about making opposing ideas or styles appear complementary, or can it also work as more of a tension or clash?

The first typeface family that I designed is Koufiya, which is the first typeface family with Arabic and Latin companions meant for each other and designed simultaneously for the express purpose of harmonizing two scripts that are so different. Koufiya is the embodiment of my political beliefs, that we need to accept our differences, and that dialogue is possible even when those engaged in it are very different. We do not need to morph one to another in order to create harmony. Real equal dialogue comes through the understanding and acceptance of what makes us different. This is true for both typographic and political landscapes. Koufiya is also a statement of the relationship between the Arabic world and the western world. I prefer that we engage in equal-footed dialogue rather than hide behind stereotypes. It is the only way forward.

Nadine Chahine is an award winning Lebanese type designer with a special interest in Arabic typography. She won the distinguished Award for Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club in New York in 2008 and 2011.

Conversation with Chess Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

The Twenty-Three Year-Old Chess Grandmaster on Sport, Strategy and Style

How do you talk about ‘style’ in chess? Give me a sense of the vocabulary that comes up in a conversation between two chess players about their ‘style of play.’

For me, more than style, the main thing is to try to make the best move in any position. Having preferences regarding a certain style can be a weakness as you need to cope with any position. That said, most people have certain preferences. In the early time of modern chess, it was considered more prestigious to have an attacking, almost a romantic approach to the game. Today the level is very high and all top players found their game on positional principles.

How have you had to adapt your game over the course of your career as you faced increasingly elite opponents?

I was more aggressive in my early days. As the level of opposition increased, I had to adapt as they constantly showed deeper understanding and outplayed me. I try to be a fighter, but at the very highest level you can’t expect to win in great fashion very often.

How has training with the help of technology changed players’ styles over the years?  What’s been lost? What’s been gained?

I learned chess the old fashion way by playing a lot as well as reading magazines and books all the time. I think this was helpful for the development of my understanding of the game. Now the engines and databases are extremely important tools, also for me, especially when it comes to opening preparations. It’s also very useful to have the opportunity to access information of games played all around the world constantly to keep track of new ideas. As all players have access to the same computer programs and databases, it’s not enough to just try to copy lines. You need to develop own ideas, and use the computer to check if they are sound or not.

You’ve said that you have no preference of playing style. Talk to me about the benefits of stylistic versatility. Does your playing style adjust according to your mood, or do you only adapt in alignment to your opponent?

I try to find the best moves all the time, but it’s obviously easier to think if your mind is fresh. For me mood and energy are important, and physical training and the right food help me feel energized. A former trainer encouraged me to try new openings all the time when I was young. I think this advice helped me in developing a versatile style. It’s very easy for many to be stuck with a few openings and patterns that work well for them. 

How else do you keep your style unpredictable?

There are no tricks or easy routes, as all my competitors know all openings very well. I just try to keep putting pressure and force my opponent to be very precise. I try to steer the game in a direction where it’s hard for my opponent to do so.

Where in a game, the opening, middle or end game, does one’s playing style shine through the most?

All top grandmasters play the opening very well, and it’s not possible to obtain a decided advantage in this phase of the game any more. This is mostly a result of the strong computer programs that all use for their preparations. This is quite new in chess, as just 10 or 15 years ago this was different. As a result, chess has become a more fighting game. You need to really fight, often from even positions after the openings, to be able to squeeze out a win in the late middle game or the ending. I think the ability to be precise through a complete game is what divides the very best from the very good. The best players very often pick up points from games that seem to be drawish, as their opponent cracks in time trouble or loses concentration at some point.

What is the relationship between strategy and style? In chess, how do these two elements of your game work in conjunction toward the ultimate goal of defeating your opponent?

 I’m looking for opportunities in all phases of the game. Often I’m a bit too optimistic about my own chances, but in chess, I think it’s way better to be too optimistic rather than the opposite. Of course fighting abilities combined with skills is important if you want to be the best. For me it’s always the most interesting to play the very best grandmasters in the world. Then the battle of ideas are really challenging. A weaker opponent often allows you to complete your plans without too much resistance, and that’s actually not so interesting from a sporting point of view.

Chess is frequently used as metaphor for other situations in life. How does an understanding or the mastery of chess, inform other life situations?

A lot of people have views on this. For me, I think I have an understanding of what it takes to achieve something. And the importance of being precise in planning and execution. In my private life I follow my intuition and gut feeling.

How has your chess game been influenced by other disciplines? How have you integrated outside influences into your game?

I think the most important influence is from other sports. And how to be professional in all aspects of my career.

Magnus Carlsen is a Norwegian chess Grandmaster and chess prodigy. At the time of this interview he is the number-one ranked player in the world.

 *Thanks to Adam Rubin for contributing questions and helping to shape this interview.


Sep 01 2013
style text misc interview

Conversation with Perfumer Carlos Huber of Arquiste

*This conversation was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style Issue; December 2012


What does ‘style’ mean to you? 

For me style is a manifestation of someone’s personality, it’s how they define themselves and choose to present themselves to the world. It can be anything from the clothes someone wears to the manners and attitude they have to of course, the fragrance they choose to wear.  

How does someone’s scent define him or her? 

Scent goes hand-in-hand with style. The scent that someone chooses speaks volumes about their personality. If you choose a scent that is sweet, bright, floral, musky, citrusy or smoky, it automatically defines your personality and feeds into your personal style.  

How do you articulate the ‘style’ of a fragrance? Is it about a region and moment in time? What are some of the other ways to describe the style of a fragrance? 

As far as fragrance types or ‘styles’, there already exists very objective categories, like florals, gourmands or woody fragrances, however, our fragrances all aim to capture a moment in time, and it’s true that the emotion a certain fragrance evokes comes from the elements that inspired it. For example, L’Etrog is inspired by the harvest of a specific citrus type from Calabria, Italy, the citron. It recreates the burst of citrus within a cabin built of palm leaves and woody branches, and contains elements of the Etrog citron, Myrtle and Date Fruit, among other things. The scent of all of those elements together are what makes up the particular “style” of that fragrance. In this case, it is a “citrus chypre” meaning a green, refreshing, zingy fragrance. The story behind it matches this happy, light feeling.

How has your background in architecture informed your current work with fragrances? 

 Architecture, like fragrance, captures certain periods in time and makes them stand still. A building built in the 1800’s tells you a different story than one built, for example, in the 1930’s or the 1990’s. When I think of when and where our fragrances take place, I study the architecture of the time, analyze the materials, if they have any olfactive properties, and the process becomes organic from there. I also focus on the people, weather and vegetation that are tied to it.

What are some surprising sources of inspiration that you’ve been able to sapply to your craft?  

 The Arquiste fragrances are inspired by very specific time periods and places. Infanta en flor is inspired by the day that the Spanish Court and the Infanta Maria Teresa encountered Louis XIV and the French, in order to cement peace between the two nations. She was perfumed with Orange flower water, but there is also the mingling of an accord known as “Peau de Espagne” a scented leather used by the men in her entourage. Fleur de Louis takes the opposite side of this event, recreating French formulas that were used to wash shirts, powder faces, perfume spaces…It also incorporates Pine and White Cedar wood, materials used in the construction of the pavilion where they met. Being from Mexico, I focused my research and curiosity to study different Mexican plants, extracts, and recipes as well.

How else have you successfully transferred elements of style from other disciplines to your work?  

I like to think we infuse style into all aspects of Arquiste. Each bottle’s labelling is done in a different font that relates to the story on which the scent is based. Arquiste’s logo is meant to look like an imprint that has been there for a long time; like the memory of perfume, it might be slightly faded, like a piece of history, but it is forever inscribed in memory. I’m very thankful for all previous work experiences, but it is not a done process; my work, my ongoing career and what I learn from friends and colleagues continue to feed the aesthetic and brand identity of Arquiste. 

Smells are often associated with history and nostalgia. What will the future smell like? What scents do you predict will be desirable in 5, 20 and 50 years? 

 It’s difficult to predict what the future will smell like and what scents will be desirable years from now. However, in working with the fragrances that evoke the past, I was surprised to find that the scents were actually also very familiar. They were actually more relevant and modern than I had even thought. As long as we maintain a connection with nature, there will be continuity in what we experience, and that is very important to predict our future.

 At one point, you designed historically-informed commercial spaces for Ralph Lauren. Tell me about that experience.  How were the environments styled to complement the clothing? What did this experience reveal to you about people’s behaviors in shopping environments? 

Ralph Lauren has a very particular approach to style. It is grounded in Americana, but feeds off of different cultures and influences. The concept behind the store environments is to create a story—some sort of narrative that fits in to the setting, the neighborhood, city or the culture. The clothes that are thought for that space are part of the story, so it’s literally like walking into someone’s world. The brand also looks towards “classic” periods, moments in time that are in a way “gilded eras”.  When people are shopping in a space so rich in details they are there to participate in this dream, the story being evoked. This is part of the magic of design. When designing a space, a garden, a dress or a perfectly crafted fragrance, you can overlook the power of the story.

Carlos Huber is the founder of Arquiste, a line of five unisex perfumes is meant to “transport you to another place and time.” Prior to his fragrance work, he has been an architect, historical preservationist and retail space designer.

Dec 27 2012
1 note Text MISC

Marketing Magic and Illusions of Simplicity

 “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke

From the introduction to the back-story to the execution of a particular set of events and techniques, a myriad of factors must go exactly right to successfully perform an illusion. This calculated multiplicity is key to the illusion’s power to fool the mind; Illusion is complexity veiled, and made to appear so simple that its appearance can only be construed as magic. It can have the effect of transforming people’s perception and definition of what is possible. It can create trust, while inspiring disbelief. Above all else, illusion makes people believe, even when they don’t trust what they are witness to.

 For centuries, magicians have passed bits and pieces of this intangible power on from generation to generation. The brotherhood and trust that has formed among illusionists is reflective of the power itself. There are always elements and intricacies of the execution that are held back and the greatest illusions of all are left for each individual, magician or not, to decode on their own.

Along with the magician’s code of secrecy though, there has also been a tradition—or sense of responsibility passed down through the world’s greatest illusionists—for skepticism and demystification. Harry Houdini debunked spiritualist séances and commissioned a book called, “The Cancer of Superstition.” While the Canadian illusionist James Randi exposed faith healers, wizards, psychics, prophets and more. Today, that tradition is upheld in the work of Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller who have been amazing and enlightening audiences with their mix of illusion, comedy, and skepticism since 1975.

Describing themselves as “a couple of eccentric guys who have learned how to do a few cool things,” their approach to magic and their populist success as magicians is strengthened by subversion. Penn and Teller thrive on debunking pseudoscientific ideas, they undermine their craft by making tricks look easy and, without breaking the magician’s code of secrecy, they continually invite their audience to discover the magic of magic. As Penn has said, “One of the things that Teller and I are obsessed with, one of the reasons that we’re in magic, is the difference between fantasy and reality.”

In marketing, the distinction between fantasy and reality can be a trivial one—particularly in tech, where consumers willingly engage with new and mystifying products though they may not understand the backend processes. Illusion relies on this tendency—misinterpretation of the total activities occurring. Illusionists often appear calm, cool and collected with many of their movements subtle and undetected, much the same as a duck crossing a pond – graceful and steady above water, but hidden beneath the surface is a flurry of movement necessary just to keep it afloat and on course. To this end, marketers can use illusion to distract and excuse the consumer from his unfamiliarity with new products and technologies. The power of illusion is to make an entire system of activities and channels materialize as one simple and magical experience for the consumer. Principles of design thinking enable brands to synthesize their many features and capabilities as a captivating narrative—an illusion. By creatively locating the illusory magic of their products, brands can leverage the power of amazement to shift perspectives and compel consumer activity. 

Apple, for example, officially describes the iPad not with a long list of technical jargon but as a “magical device.”  The illusion, in this case, plays up magic to obfuscate the complexities. The language, like the interfaces themselves, becomes a veil of illusion. The operating systems show only the top layer of their framework, making the user experience feel like magic. As Apple designer Johnny Ives contended in the iPadʼs original promotional video: “When something exceeds your ability to know how it works, it sort of becomes magical.” Behind the veil, of course there are innumerable processes occurring, but emphasis is placed on the visual and sensual rather than the technical—“It’s like holding the internet in your hands.” Instead of dwelling on practical features or the ‘technical how’ of the product, the strength of illusion is such that audiences are contented to wallow in a state of amazement and disbelief.

Similarly, Sergey Brin likens Google to ‘the mind of God’ – and it can seem that way sometimes with its uncannily accurate responses to keyword queries. While behind the scenes, transport agents mine the data and return with results algorithmically sorted by relevance, the product works so instantaneously and accurately as to seem magical, predictive and productive in the sense that it brings something out of nothing. In fact, it is the aggregate effect of aggregate activities showing forth as illusory magic, a product of faith and awe. Or as Teller reveals, “to fool the mind, you must combine at least two tricks.”

 Illusion’s ability to confound the senses buys the illusionist a currency of sort. This currency can be used throughout the duration of the spell to help reset the audience’s understanding and is something that magicians can capitalize on. For brands, that sense of spellbound infatuation translates as a unique opportunity to close sales and secure extended loyalty. For Apple and Google, the mysterious nature of magic plays on people’s need to believe, creating a cult-like following.

The magician’s oath promises “never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless he swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn.” Exposure of the secret is believed to remove the element of amazement. The tricks lose their ‘magic’ and instead function as intellectual puzzles. Penn and Teller however, debunkers that they are, frequently reveal their methods using transparent props. They reason that an understanding and appreciation of the mastery and cleverness of the illusion actually enhances the audience’s experience. Furthermore, Penn and Teller add twists and unexplained effects into the exposures that are even more astonishing than the original trick. Rather than ruining the magic by revealing the simplicity of the secret, they raise the stakes by educating their audience, and proceeding to astonish them still more. Entertaining an informed audience is more ambitious and rewarding than going for the cheap thrill. As consumers become increasingly technologically literate and curious—not to mention suspicious of sales jargon—brands too can benefit by demystifying their own magic. When James Dyson revolutionized the vacuum with dual cyclone technology, he made the dust container transparent so people could see how it worked. In the innovation economy, value is made not only from the ‘magical’ effects of a good product but also from the beauty of that product’s inner workings, the processes involved, and the methods that lead to it.

 To truly mesmerize his consumers, a savvy brand magician plays first into their faculties for astonishment and disbelief, and then engages their curiosity.

*originally published in M/I/S/C Magazine’s Simplicity Issue

Epiphany: Notes on Design Thinking

A more arousing word for insight is epiphany—sudden revelations of truth, from aggregate experience, and triggered by the something trivial in the present. The feeling is part of what motivates and fulfills us as thinkers. Its surprise is its power, that the thankless labor will make itself worthwhile, in a sudden and unexpected instant. The labor though—the time spent trying to make sense of the problem, rather than the moment of unfolding—is what’s important. Waiting for moments, one loses sight of motives.

Scott Berkun, in his book The Myths of Innovation, dismisses the something-out-of-nothing epiphany as naive romanticism. “The most useful way to think about epiphany,” he advises, “is as an occasional bonus of working on tough problems… When a powerful moment does happen, little knowledge is granted for how to find the next one. Even in the myths, Newton had one apple and Archimedes had one eureka. To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point.” Epiphanies are moments of synthesis, which bring to surface and purpose, the disparate chords we had already suspected would interrelate in meaningful ways. They’re the product of extensive and diverse efforts. And there are other electric ‘moments’ along the way: the hunch before, the study toward, and the articulation after that gives the epiphany its value.

The French mathematician Poincaré saw epiphanies as the accumulation of a life’s effort. He suggested that ideas become like “mobilized atoms in the unconscious, arranging and rearranging themselves in endless combinations, until finally the ‘most beautiful’ of them makes it through a ‘delicate sieve’ into full consciousness, where it will then be refined and proved.”

With cognitive frameworks like design thinking, we’d like to think we can somehow design our cognitive processes in a kind of rube goldberg mechanism arriving finally at a powerful insight, or epiphany. Can we? Part of that comes down to exposure. How do you bring together your influences? What do you spend your time reading, looking at, listening to, and discussing? How do you intuitively pull together the right bits of data and sparks of inspiration to maximize the quality of your output? I think of this as strategic or controlled exposure—creating a deliberately polymathic environment as the ‘studio.’

*A version of this piece was published in M/I/S/C Magazine’s Insight Issue.

Jan 24 2012
9 notes Text MISC 194

User-Focused Party-Rocking

published in MISC Magazine, Fall 2011

and at NoodlePlay.com, January 2012

User-Focused Party-Rocking: Customer Experience in the Nightclub

Yale Fox is a DJ and nightclub sociologist living and working between Las Vegas and New York City.  In 2010, while working toward his PhD at the University of Toronto, Yale was contacted by a prominent Vegas nightclub – one of the highest rated in the world. So began Yale Fox’s transition from professional student to nightclub experience guru.  This year, Yale received a TED Fellowship for his research on how a customer’s behaviors within a system (the nightclub) are influenced by the DJ’s repertoire of song selection – as well as other factors (flashing lights, wait times, architecture, the staff and other patrons, and the unholy alchemy of Red Bull and vodka).

His company, the 194 Group, is part research lab, part experiential branding firm and part talent agency – representing an impressive roster of DJs and party hosts. For Yale, the live booking aspects of the business are more a networking tool and a signifier of their coolness equity, “when (a potential client) asks, ‘how do we know that you guys know what’s hot in music?’ Well our DJs are playing the hottest nightclubs in the world.” The talent agency maintains their presence in the nightclubs, and Yale’s thesis papers provide a theoretical grounding for their services, but “we’re a marketing firm,” he asserts, “enhancing brand experience through music.” The 194 Group refers to 194 dB, the loudest sound pressure level a human ear can perceive without being damaged and a double entendre suggesting the Group’s ability to amplify a brand through music.

Yale’s business partner Shez Mehra (DJ Wristpect), is a world-class DJ with a b-school vernacular and sensibility, who throws around phrases like “end-user-focused party-rocking.” Shez explains that there is often a conflict between what the client wants and what the customer wants, “A lot of times, the executives from a brand, the promoters, or the venue owner, will want to dictate how we should play.” For Shez, mixing songs for the owner of the club, or for the client, would be the DJ equivalent of designing your customer experience around the disposition of the shareholder. Of course, both the relationship with end-user and with the client, need to be managed. The latter requires a certain level of trust. “The client has one goal,” says Shez. “It’s either to sell alcohol or to spread the message about their product or service to the people in the venue. We do what we do to resonate with the end-user. Once they trust us to do that, they see it unfold in front of their eyes. They see the vibe. They see the sales and they see people leaving happily with their merch and talking about their experience.”

            For Research in Motion, 194 collaborated with Maritz to architect “BBM the DJ,” a series of experiential events to launch the BlackBerry Torch. The parties, exclusively for influencers—celebrities, athletes, bloggers, and executives—as well as for sales reps from various retailers and wireless carriers, were designed to get the right people excited about the product. Attendees were given a Torch upon arrival, and could add an account that would allow them to literally BBM their requests to the DJ. A giant television monitor, dressed as a BlackBerry, displayed the requests, at which point the DJ was tasked to play as many of the requests as possible while maintaining the flow of the night. Shez characterizes this task, the improvisational element of creating a customer experience, as, “catering to the situation,” a notion that applies to many business spaces outside of the nightclub.

While Yale’s research papers are distributed and discussed within the 194 Group in the form of white papers and internal memos—both Yale and Shez are quick to point out that competence in moving dance floors is only teachable a certain point. “Its hard to plan for,” Shez tells me. “In the BlackBerry Tours across North America, every city was completely different. What worked in New York didn’t work in Boston. You have to trust your talent to get into the psyche of the crowd.”

A recent 194 Group signee, DJ Mensa who also happens to have a background in psychology and marketing, adds that DJing is like creating any number of other customer experiences: “You say something with a song. Hopefully the crowd responds. Then you say something with another song and hopefully it perpetuates the conversation. I’ve always considered DJing a customer service. Develop a vibe that will hopefully peak at the right time.”

[More from my Interview with Yale Fox after the jump]

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Interview with Brian Wong

Brian Wong is the fast-tracking, twenty-year-old founder of Kiip—a software business that enables game developers and brands to reward gamers for their virtual achievements, with real-life rewards. ‘Kiiper moments,’ as Brian calls them, leverage the satisfaction of achievement, when a gamer is most engaged, for customer acquisition. You beat a level—you win a prize from a brand—relative to the weight of the achievement.

Brian is believed to be the youngest person to ever receive VC funding, and was recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Here is the unabridged version of a conversation I had with him for MISC Magazine's Creative Challengers spread

Were you a big video gamer in school?

I was a huge Counterstrike fan. It will always be my favorite game.

Summarize for the non-gamer. You’re playing a Kiip-enabled game—say it’s Counterstrike. You complete a mission, what’s the user-experience as far as Kiip is involved?

We integrate directly into the games. As a user, when you level-up, get a top score or another achievement—you’ll get a notification that comes up and says ‘hey you just got a reward from Vitamin Water.’ You tap ‘Redeem’ and go back into the game, knowing that you’ve got a redemption email in your inbox. Then you take the coupon to a store and walk out with free Vitamin Water.

Tell me about the power of the moment of achievement in gaming and how you’re leveraging it.

The moment is unbelievably cool. The power is in the happiness attached to accomplishing something. It also happens to be a natural breakage in play. The screen says ‘congratulations’ and you say, ‘I’m a good player. I did a good job here.’ Reflecting on that is very powerful.

I’m trying to challenge this traditional mindset of trying to linearly evolve technology. Rather than think a mobile device is handicapped because the screen is smaller, and saying, ‘yeah, yeah - let’s make the banner ad smaller,’ why don’t you try to leverage its unique strength? I’m challenging conventional thinking about ‘attention.’ Attention has been a big part of how digital marketing has evolved. Now, it’s less about screen estate and more about experience. We’re humans. We emote. We learn and perceive things in true emotions.

In what other spaces, outside of video gaming, do you see the moments-based model coming into play?

We want to be the rewards layer for the world. Achievement moments are everywhere. You’re hearing about this trend, and the term is becoming so overused—‘the gamification of life.’ Imagine any type of social play where an achievement is acknowledged. I want to own the notion of (brands) rewarding achievements—Kiiper moments. Internally, we’ll play sports sometimes with the Kiip team and with MC Hammer who’s a close friend of the company. When I score a touchdown, that’s a Kiiper moment!

Sorry. MC Hammer? I know he’s been investing in tech…

I can’t comment on his involvement but I’ll say that Hammer understands pop culture and how these things explode. I met him a year ago at a party and told him about Kiip and he goes, “Holy Shit! This is crazy.” Ever since then, he’s had an affinity toward us, and we connect almost on a weekly basis. He’s a marketing genius. He became popular before I was born and built a brand around himself that he’s still is well known for. It’s insane. Everybody knows him. Branding. Pop culture. PR. He’s a specialist.

You had the idea for Kiip while walking the aisles of an airplane, doing what you’ve called iPad creeping; watching what people are doing on their iPads. Creeping, eavesdropping, people watching—this kind of all-the-time-research is the work of artists. Talk to me about voyeurism as creativity. Do you ideate by watching people’s behaviors?

I love people watching. It’s what I do. Like artists and creatives—they combine. It’s formalized as what they call ‘lateral thinking.’ Taking two seemingly unrelated ideas and combining them in beautiful ways. When I started thinking about games, I didn’t fully understand mobile gaming at the time. I’m not a game designer. So I said from a non-game designer perspective, ‘how can I take advantage of what I already know?’ I don’t know how to build the storylines, or graphics or spreads or isometric grids. But I can learn about the elements that a consumer perceives and how they drive attention and engagement.

I am a graphic designer. I know how to ideate visually. Sometimes when an entrepreneur has an idea, they start working on a business plan. I’d rather not write a business plan, I’d rather just mock that shit up. So I go on Photoshop and instead of writing, I visually draw it out and use that as the describer of the idea.

You’ve talked about ‘Inception’ as a sales strategy. How did that film influence your rhetorical savvy, your pitching technique and your ability to convince?

Inception is an interesting way to help people understand your idea in their own way. I don’t want to shove my idea down your throat. I’ll let them come up with my idea on their own.  I can’t really explain this but it usually takes about a month and people will come back and say they want to become a part of this. That’s the gestation period. You know the red car theory, you buy a red car and you start noticing the red cars everywhere. I identify this new dynamic around moments and the achievements of people playing games and then after that conversation they start noticing it, and once they see how many people are doing it, they go ‘Whoaa!’ and that’s when the inception kicks in. I’m sure that what’s happening. That happened to me. I inceptionized myself.

It obviously took some confidence to enter the industry the way you have. What do you tell the next young kid with a great idea?

Be as observant as you can. Figure out what the idea is, and then learn as much about the industry as you can. Find opinions from everybody. Be stealth publicly, but not to people you meet. I shared my idea with taxi drivers and Starbucks barristas. I told everyone my idea because I wanted to see if the regular Joe could understand my model. Get that well-rounded opinion and then know when to stop asking questions. You can’t learn and validate forever. When it feels right—start charging!

MISC Magazine Creative Challengers

For MISC Magazine, I recently had the opportunity to interview ten of what we are calling, “Creative Challengers,” or design thinkers who challenge conventional wisdom - “upsetting the status quo, seizing opportunities that others miss and improving systems by inventing new approaches and solutions.”

Working closely with Publisher/EIC, Idris Mootee, Editor, Ashley Perez, and Art Director, Jessica Tien who is responsible for the elegant collages that accompany each interview, we wanted to compile an impressive list but even more wanted to produce substantive content on each Challenger - meatier than your usual run-of-the-mill end-of-year magazine list. To this end, I interviewed each individual - to provide a feel for the forces he/she is driven by. Along with the expected (required) traits - bravery, perseverance, creativity, and a desire to change things - we were struck that across the board, these individuals were humble and curious lifelong learners.

I will post versions of some interviews here, or you may read the entire feature in PDF form here.

Below is a snippet of my interview with one of this year’s Challengers, Dave Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Geniusand the mind behind 826 Valencia, a non-profit organization devoted to helping children and young adults develop writing skills.

Tell me about your inspiration for 826 Valencia, and the importance of one-on-one tutoring attention for students.

The original idea behind 826 Valencia was to build a simple drop-in tutoring center in the Mission District of San Francisco. We geared the services toward kids from non-English-speaking homes, kids who needed some extra one-on-one attention. I knew that huge leaps could be made through one-on-one interactions; studies say that a student can gain a grade level with 40 hours of one-on-one work. But after that, the center grew in dozens of unexpected ways — into student publishing, workshops, teacher assistance and advocacy, college access, scholarships. It keeps growing as the students grow.

You’ve published children’s works in print form, and found it motivational and transformative for them. It says something about the book as an artifact — that it can have that effect.

I was in Brooklyn yesterday, holding in my hands a young adult novel that was produced at 826NYC and afterward was acquired by a real, professional publisher. The kid was 16 when she wrote it, but it was good enough to attract an agent, a house, everything. And there are tons of students whose work deserves our attention, and they work like mad when they know their work will appear in a book. So we see publishing student work as honoring student voices, amplifying student thought.

Read the whole interview and others here.